Film Review: Anaarkali of Aarah

Written and directed by first time director Avinash Das, Anaarkali of Aarah tells the story of a performance artist who writes and performs erotic songs with her troupe of poets, musicians, singers and dancers. These performances are mostly watched by men in Aarah, a small town in the Bhojpuri speaking region of India. This film is an entertaining thriller. Don’t be fooled by the upbeat tone of the film or the poster. Even though they are not misleading, this film maintains an undertone of how chilling the seemingly normal may be. Its with this premise that the film opens and grips you then on until the very end.

What would you think of a woman whose profession is singing about the sexual fantasies of men and women? How would you look at someone like that? The lyrics of her songs playfully suggest sexual acts and desire, a topic majorly taboo and thus missing from mass media and public space in India. Anaarkali’s performances are no doubt attended by men because in India, men have a right to sexual desire and fantasy and are allowed to engage in it publicly as long as it involves a woman who does not exist in the sacrosanct space of being a wife/mother/sister of a man. If she does not fall into this category then she is easily classified a whore or of “loose character” and somehow deserving of being mistreated or abused. This is a nationwide phenomena in India and such beliefs hold true for educated upper middle class and upper class men and women, although not as much as they do for the lower classes. Set in the regional background of Bihar, the film questions this mass attitude towards genders. It zooms in on specific participants in such a society of gender politics. The film questions what is widely understood as values, culture and attitude.

From the get go, the filmmaker hopes that Anaarkali isn’t looked at through the lens of gender taboos but of a human being, a person worth knowing, no matter her choice of career. You know her as Anaar- the girl who wears mismatched clothes and no make up in her home, performing household chores and as Anaarkali Aarahwali (from Aarah), the performer, presenting a made up, glittery, sexy version of herself. The contrast makes you admire her talent for transformation. For being a very real, vulnerable person and the mask she, so consciously puts on for her work. Her resilient personality, her passion for her work, her pride in her body, her genuine talent for poetry, music and dance, make her a very likable character. You will easily find yourself rooting for and falling in love with her. Swara Bhaskar essays the role with perfection making her a kind-hearted, lovable Anaarkali.

Sanjay Mishra’s VC saab (Vice Chancellor) comes straight at you from one of those well-traversed sarkaari (government office) corridors reeking of power and corruption. He is seemingly harmless, comical even; without a hint of evil or villainy and does not come across as an exploitative person. Anaarkali’s victim is brave, intelligent and determined. Her true pride and self-love are shown as she refuses to give in to most others trying to dispossess her of her body and emotions. The narrative slowly turns her from a proud and happy performance artist to a tormented being desperately trying to take back control of her life and work while also trying to claim her right to bodily integrity. We surf the details and the depths of gender bias driven by patriarchy and misogyny, fueled by power and corruption. Her struggle soon turns into a fight for her right to do the work of her choice without being judged/punished for it. She never once blames or looks down upon her profession. This is the true victory of this film. Beautiful details will make you want to revisit this film. The costumes are well done, the dialogue crisp and entertaining. This film is definitely one you don’t want to miss.